Artist Spotlight: Dean Tsur

TMIJ International Saxophone Competition Semi-Finals, Sept. 15, 2013

Dean Tsur is a promising young Israeli saxophonist, who recently earned his Master’s degree in Jazz Saxophone from the prestigious Juilliard School. He was a semifinalist at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and won the North American Saxophone Alliance Competition. Tsur was featured in jazz tours in Russia and Ukraine, and has performed in festivals and venues around the world, such as: Caramoor Jazz Festival (Jazz at Lincoln Center, NY), Red Sea Jazz Festival and Blue Note. He has shared the stage with Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove. He often plays with the finest young jazz musicians, as well as with well-known musicians such as Frank Lacy (Art Blakey), Jerry Dodgion (Thad Jones/Mel Lewis), Ben Wolf (Wynton Marsalis) and Michael Rodriguez, among others.

What or who inspired you to want to be an artist?

I come from a family of jazz lovers. My parents are music enthusiasts, as was my late grandfather. When I was growing up, my parents used to play Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald albums often, along with old Israeli music, and French music. I was always inspired by Louis Armstrong’s recordings the most.
When I was eight, I mistakenly thought that he played the saxophone, and that is why I asked my parents to learn how to play that instrument. I went to the local conservatory and asked about taking lessons, but they told me that I was too small to play the saxophone at the time. As a compromise, I agreed to play recorder for two years until they finally let me take saxophone lessons. Looking back, I think waiting for two year strengthened my motivation to play.

What was your creative journey that has brought you to where you are in your career today?
Like every musician, I have gone through many phases in my learning process.
When I started playing, I connected mostly with saxophonists who excel in playing the blues, like Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, and David Newman.
As an early teenager, I was often focused on harmony, and was listening to saxophonists like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Later on, I learned about Michael Brecker, and current saxophonists such as Mark Turner and Chris Potter.
In high school, I fell in love with the music of Lester Young, and as a result I started to listen to other players fromSwing Era.
When I started studying at Juilliard, I continued to be interested in earlier periods of jazz. In New York I have had the opportunity to meet and play with players who were my idols as a teenager. Some of the older jazz musicians in New York experienced playing with people such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Elington, and others. When I play with those musicians, I can feel the presence of the previous generations. All of a sudden, how masterful Coleman Hawkins was, for example, becomes clear. The reason to study his music is not because he is from the old generation, but because he was a great musician, with a musical understanding that is beyond a specific style.
I have also learned a lot from my peers, especially saxophonists. They have taught me by just watching and hearing them play. You never know what collaborations will come out of meeting someone. Some of the musicians that I met at Juilliard or at the Thelonious Monk Competition, have influenced my creative journey. We now play together in different projects, including my own.
Musicians, like scientists, do quality research and then apply what they have learned to come up with new ideas. Over the years, I have learned the importance of studying a diversity of styles and taking the learning process seriously rather than needing to pick a specific style to focus on. For example, I love Michael Brecker but also Don Byas. While these styles may differ, the study of each does not contradict. Although thinking about learning the entire continuum of jazz may seem overwhelming to many (myself included), the truth is that it is possible to learn about many styles and periods. It just takes time and one learns to enjoy the process.

What do you need as an artist today?

I need what every artist needs: an audience. For many years I have been focused on learning. While I have a lot more to learn, of course, now I feel that it is time for me to also be entrepreneurial and to establish myself as an artist. I invite everyone to listen to my new band: Dean Tsur Saxophone Choir. It has a unique instrumentation of six saxophones, piano, bass, and drums. We play fun and danceable music that is also romantic and rich. We will perform a residency at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center on October 31st-November 4th. A new video of the band is available on my website (

What creative project are you working on now?

I am working on writing arrangements for my saxophones choir and preparing for the recording of our first album: 100 Years of Jazz Saxophone. The album, which will come out next year, will be produced by a multi-Grammy Award musician. It will be dedicated to the connection between the first generation of jazz saxophonists and our generation. The album will feature a few well-known guests and the regular band members, who have collectively played with Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Jon Batiste (from the Stephen Colbert show), and were nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards. If anyone is interested in partnering with us as a sponsor, I would be happy to get in touch.
In the near future, I plan to lead workshops at colleges with the band’s music. These workshops will introduce students to new musical styles and ideas.
In addition to what I do as a leader of my own band, I also play regularly with Evan Sherman Big Band, Eyal Vilner Big Band (touring soon in Israel), and Greg Ruvolo Big Band.

Where do you see yourself and your career in 10 years?

A decade from now, I envision myself as a world-renowned saxophonist and bandleader performing around the world, and putting out albums regularly.

What does it mean to you to be an Israeli artist?

I love my country and I am grateful for where I grew up. My music is meant for Israelis and other audiences alike. I think that someone with a different background from the Israeli music’s mainstream can contribute to it. In the last few years, I have been involved with several projects in Israel. However, at the moment, I am focused on my projects in New York.

Jazz is a place that combines a high level of execution with unique self-expression. Each member’s input is important, and together the group brings the music to culmination. The teamwork among people from different countries and origins, contributes to a feeling of togetherness around the world. It also promotes Israel as a pluralist country that values universal art and culture, and exposes the world to Israel’s musicians.

What does it mean to you to have an organization like the America-Israel Cultural Foundation supporting Israeli culture in the past 78 years?

Scholarships and grants have been some of the most important support systems for the sustainability and education of artists for thousands of years. Many of the most significant art works in history have been made possible by such support.

Music has a positive affect on our emotions and intellect. A musician that is able to have this affect on people is an excellent musician. Organizations such as America-Israel Cultural Foundation support high-level musicians, and therefore they are partners in creating that value in society. Without them, the music market would have less high quality music, which would make it easier for marketers to influence the audience rather than artistic value. Being a high-level artist requires a lot of time and money. Those scholarships are crucial to many artists and especially to those who come from less fortunate financial circumstances. The existence of those funds allows for quality music to be produced.